The Problem of Coordinating Arms in WW2

The Problem of Coordinating Arms in WW2

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“To a considerable degree, war experience  indicates that unsatisfactory command and   control of forces results from poor organization  of communications work and, first and foremost,   from ignoring radio communications as the  most effective means of communication.” Infantry, tanks, assault guns, air support,  naval support, communications, supplies,   artillery, rockets and a whole host of other  different arms and equipment that all need to   work together in order to beat the enemy. And  yet, sometimes - actually a lot of times - this   went wrong. So today, we’re going to explore  the coordination, and failure of coordination,   of arms during the Second World War. Because,  my Patreon, Phil asked this question - Hi TIK. I was thinking that, instead  of focusing on a specific battle,   it would be interesting to compare and contrast  allied vs. axis ability to coordinate attacks. My  

son (USMC) just finished a deployment with the  22nd MEU where he acted as the unit operations   officer. I've learned about the huge effort  needed, even today, to coordinate naval, ground,   and air assets to accomplish even transient  tactical objectives. Anyway, just a thought.   Maybe Military History Visualized is a more  appropriate channel. Open to your thoughts! I’ll be honest, I’ve delayed answering  this question for several months,   because I can find plenty of examples of  when there’s a failure of coordination,   but finding out exactly how they coordinated in  the first place has been a bit of a struggle. So,   my answer may be slanted towards failure, rather  than how they did it, and apologies for the delay. Plus, it seems that an OFFICIAL coordination  of arms didn’t happen until after 1945,   at least according to the book “Toward Combined  Arms Warfare” by Jonathan House - yes, the guy who   works a lot with David Glantz. Really recommended  if you want to do some follow-up reading.  

He lists several things that are required for  Combined Arms warfare (which is essentially   another way of saying a  ‘coordination’ of attacks). The first thing we need to consider when talking  about coordination and cooperation between   different arms is interservice rivalry. It’s  alright saying that tanks and planes and ships   should cooperate and coordinate together, but when  there’s jealousy or rivalry between the different   branches of the military, then things become  problematic, as you’ll see. In both Germany and   in Britain, prior to the war and during it, there  was a tug of war between the army, navy and the   air force. And it was over scarce resources that  have alternative uses, and operational priorities. “While struggling to fulfil its  own ambitious expansion programmes,   the German Army was in constant competition  with the other branches of the armed services   over the allocation of industrial  and raw material resources.”

I’ve touched upon this in last week’s video, and  I’ll be talking about it again in the future,   how Hitler believed that the army  was a threat to his hold on power.   So this is why he favoured the Luftwaffe, pouring  in tons of resources into that newer branch. “...the portion assigned to the expansion  of the Luftwaffe would consistently average   between 30-40 percent of the entire defence  budget throughout the period of 1934-1939,   well ahead of proportion spent by its  later adversaries on their air forces.” The expansion of the Kriegsmarine was  then given absolute priority by Hitler   over all other services - and all other  industrial projects in the Reich - on the   27th of January 1939. This was because he wanted  to challenge Britain’s dominance of the seas…   further evidence that he expected war  with Britain at some point, by the way.

“Throughout the war, the  U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF)   operated almost independently from the other  elements of the Army... AAF leaders believed   strongly in the value of strategic bombing.  This belief only increased their tendency to  

distance themselves from the ground arms. The  result was near disaster on the battlefield,   retrieved only by the common sense  of tactical commanders on the spot.” But this tug of war even extended right  down to sub-units within each branch.  

The British regimental system  was problematic because,   on the one hand it made the men passionate about  the regiment they served, but on the other hand   it also discouraged changes and interservice  cooperation. As a result, the infantry and   tanks were reluctant to cooperate with the RAF -  itself unwilling to help the army because that was   seen as a violation of RAF doctrine. As another  example, Heinz Guderian gives this account - “Our limited resources in the sphere of  motorisation were further squandered owing   to various organisational errors  committed by other arms of the service.   For example, the Chief of the General Army  Office, General Fromm, ordered that the 14th   (anti-tank) Company of all Infantry Regiments be  motorised. When I maintained that these companies,  

since they would be working with foot soldiers,  would do better to remain horse-drawn, he replied   ‘The infantry’s got to have a few cars too’.  My request that, instead of the 14th Companies,   the Heavy Artillery Battalions be motorized was  turned down. The heavy guns remained horse-drawn,   with unfortunate results during  the war, particularly in Russia.” In 1935, all anti-aircraft units in the  German Army were placed under Luftwaffe   command and control, effectively  stripping the army of its flak weapons.   This is why most German Army divisions didn’t  have anti-aircraft guns. And if they did, like  

the 24th Panzer Division at Stalingrad, then their  anti-aircraft battalion was a Luftwaffe Battalion,   explaining why it was numbered differently from  their other divisional battalions. In 24th Panzer   Division, their pionier battalion was numbered  40; their panzerjäger battalion was numbered 40;   but their flak battalion was numbered 602.  And it wasn’t actually part of the division,   but attached to it, having only  arrived on the 19th of August 1942. The famous photo of the Luftwaffe soldiers  walking through the streets of Minina   in Stalingrad is a great example of this.  They were from the 3rd Battery of the 25th  

Anti-Aircraft Regiment that was attached to  48th Panzer Corps’ 94th Infantry Division. Sturmgeschütz units - though fighting with  front-line infantry and panzers - were   technically part of the artillery branch of  the German Army. And artillery units were   technically attached to German  divisions - not part of them. “...the divisional artillery was  commanded by an Artillerieführer (Arfu),   who was the divisional commander’s  adviser on artillery matters.”

This is perhaps why small artillery  guns were provided to the infantry   in the German Army to allow them to control  their own guns. A classic example is the 7.5cm   light infantry gun number 18. German  anti-tank guns were controlled by the army,   while the British decided to  man them with artillerymen. So, we can imagine that interservice rivalry,  and different ranks, training regimes, and   priorities, would (and, in fact, did) result in  problems in the field when it came to coordinating   mission orientated actions. A great example of  this is Richtofen during the Stalingrad campaign,   who just complains over and over about how  bad the army is compared to his glorious   Luftwaffe, and gets into  arguments with the generals. But, at least in the case of the ground troops,  cooperation between infantry, tanks and StuGs   was encouraged through the use of doctrinal  manuals, which were passed on to the troops.  

Guderian’s book ‘Actung Panzer!’ came out  in 1937 and outlined what was needed - “What we desire is a modern and fast moving  force of infantry, possessing strong fire power,   and specially equipped, organised and  trained in co-operation with tanks.” What allowed infantry elements to coordinate and  cooperate with tanks and assault guns was proper   communications equipment. Without a means to speak  with other tanks, or other nearby units, an attack   or defence would break down fast. And if  you think about this in infantry-terms. A   commander can shout to other members of his  platoon, or send a runner to the rest of the   company to deliver instructions. But beyond  that, you need better ways of communicating.

If you’re out in the middle of a  field with a bunch of infantry,   the enemy’s ahead of you, and you’re under fire.   Okay, you may have a tank or two nearby helping  you out, but how are you going to talk to the   tank commander? How are you going to call in  that artillery support, or that air strike you really need? You might say - by radio! Well,  unfortunately, that’s not how it   went. The US Army didn’t have enough radios to  equip its units until 1944, and other armies   were even worse off. The Soviet Red Army may  as well not have bothered. On the eve of war - “The General Staff and prospective wartime fronts  lacked 65 percent of their authorized radios,   field armies and corps were short 89 percent  of their radios, and divisions, regiments,   and battalions lacked 38, 23, and 42  percent of their radios, respectively.   Worse still, 75 percent of the radios within the  front commands were obsolete, as were 22, 89,   and 63 percent of the radios within  field armies, divisions, and regiments.   When these commands relied heavily on vehicle  couriers and the postal service to communicate,   they found vehicles and motorcycles also in short  supply and the postal service far too untimely.”

Probably wasn’t as bad as the  Australian Postal Service though…   When Barbarossa started the Germans annihilated  the Red Army, partly because Soviet communications   were non-existent, and what little there  was got smashed in the opening days by the   Luftwaffe and panzer formations which bombed  or overran them. What few radios and other   equipment they actually had were lost, making the  situation even worse for the Red Army later on. Throughout 1941 and 1942, Red Army communications  could be described as nothing short of a disaster,   and the command and coordination of Red Army  units - from the lowest, all the way to the   top - suffered massively as a result. It was only  in 1943 that the Red Army managed to put radios  

into some of their battalions - and nowhere  near all of them. So before the end of 1943,   at best, only regiments and above  had radios - and again, not always. This is really where British Lend-Lease came  in during the early part of the war - because   Britain was a primary producer, and leader, in  radio communications equipment. And by 1945,   88% of all the Red Army’s communications  equipment came from Lend-Lease - with the   British, United States, and Canada,  really helping to equip the Red Army.

But even the Western Allies were short of  radios, as were the Axis. So tanks and other   vehicles though in the US, British, Soviet  and German Armies used a three flag system   of yellow, green and red to communicate with each  other. But flags were often discarded because they   attracted bullets and bombs. Therefore  hand signals were usually used instead.   The problem with flags or hand signals (apart  from the fact that they’re only good for subunit   communication) is that they don’t work at  night, in the rain, or in dirt, smoke, or fog,   and can lead to miscommunications. Worse, if the  observer fails to see them, you’re out of luck. In episode 2 of my Battlestorm Stalingrad  series, we saw how the 158th Heavy Tank Brigade   had arrived and drove straight through Lebedenko’s  55th Tank Brigade in their attack towards the   German lines. Lebedenko got down from his tank and  waved for them to stop, but the KV-1 tanks ignored   him and rolled right into the German anti-tank  guns, where 28 KVs were wiped out. Lebedenko’s  

hand waving didn’t stop them. And it’s clear that  Lebedenko didn’t have a radio. Or, if he did,   he couldn’t communicate with them because  they probably didn’t have a radio themselves.   And even if they did, they were a separate  unit, and so to communicate to them,   he would have had to call the army command first. You see, the way communications worked was that  a battalion could communicate with a neighbouring   battalion of the same regiment. But, if they  wanted to communicate with another battalion from   a different regiment, they would have to contact  their regiment first, who would contact the next   regiment, who would contact the battalion. But  that’s only if they were in the same division.  

If there were two neighbouring battalions from two  different divisions, one battalion would call the   regiment, then the division, who would contact  the other division, who’d tell their regiment,   and finally the regiment would tell their  battalion. You can imagine that this wasn’t   particularly efficient, and was very time  intensive. But if it wasn’t done this way,   then the centralized command and coordination of  the units could collapse. So part of the reason  

armies had a hierarchy of command was because  this allowed better coordination within them. There were exceptions to the rule though. Both  the British and the United States developed a   system where reports would be sent from the lower  units to the top by bypassing those in-between.  

But it was realized that this system wasn’t  only good at sending reports to the top,   but that it could be used to send  orders from the top to the bottom.   And when this happened, it allowed senior  commanders to react quicker to developing   situations - although middle-management  commanders may have felt left out. This organizational communication problem is  perhaps why Kampfgruppen - or Battlegroups - gave   the Germans a massive tactical advantage,  because they were basically temporary   units that could be created on the fly, that  bypassed the traditional chain of command,   but still retained command and control. So you  can imagine that a bunch of battalions (maybe  

even from two or more different divisions)  could be given a leader and then a task.   Then the subunits could just ask the leader for  instructions, rather than going up several steps   and then down again in the hierarchy. It would  make for much more efficient communication,   but still a decent level of organisation. If you  haven’t seen my video on Kampfgruppen, you should. Another advantage that the Germans had was that,   right from the 1800s, they encouraged their  officers to go forwards and make decisions.   (I know, a radical concept. But in contrast to  the British, it was.) This decentralized command  

and control allowed a lot more flexibility in the  field. The problem was that, as the war progressed   (and especially after the tide of war had  turned), Hitler demanded more centralised control.   This was a political move more than a military  concept, but it ultimately took away the   flexibility within the system. But the idea of  generals going forwards to observe, or in a lot   of cases, actually get involved in the combat,  resulted in them getting pinned down, or reduced   the effectiveness of subordinate commanders  because they would defer to the senior general. Of course, even if there was enough radio  equipment, and even if there was a decent   organisational structure, you still had to be  careful that the enemy wouldn’t either listen   in, or even disrupt your communications.

“Our radio communication was very poor,  and our officers were reluctant to use it,   as the Germans intercepted our signals…  They could create radio interference to   stop us communicating - or actually break in  to our communications to speak to us directly,   mocking us with their technological superiority,  suddenly declaring: ‘Russ - stop talking now!’ ” “Violating every rule of telephone communications,  we have conducted operational conversations   openly naming units, formations, their  missions and dispositions, and the names   and ranks of commanders. In the process, top  secret information has fallen into enemy hands.” The British, who had more radios than the Soviets  but a shortage of cipher staff, knew that the   Germans were listening to their conversations.  They had at least enough sense to mask their   speech with ‘veiled’ conversations. But the  Germans soon realized who they were talking about. “Hullo SABO, JUMO calling. Don’t worry about Bob.  He can look after himself. JUMO to SABO off.”

In fact, Rommel only had one ‘Horch’ Company  that intercepted British communications,   but it was so effective that he often had a  complete picture of where the British units were. “When the British finally became aware  of this unit’s activities in July 1942,   an Australian battalion raided  and captured the company.   German replacements could not replace the  expertise of the analysts lost in that company   and thus had more difficulty detecting  later British deception operations.” And radios suffered other problems too. The  British at Arnhem famously had radio issues.  

But the main problem was that radios were in their  infancy. The Second World War was the first war   where units like battalions and regiments had  significant numbers of radios. Yet the radios   were temperamental to say the least. Long range  radios (known as the AM type) had to be set up   in place, and couldn’t be moved because it  would break communications. Worse, mounting  

them on vehicles proved problematic because their  electronics would interfere with their signals, so   these factors rendered them a bad  piece of kit for rapid attacks.   FM type radios were often smaller and compact,  often being called “handie-talkies”. But they were   only capable of line-of-sight communications.  Any hills in the way would block the radio. “When several different signals  were being transmitted on one band   FM radios could only pick up the  strongest and the others were blocked.”

They also had a limited range. The famous  ‘walkie-talkie’ radio (the US SCR-300)   only had a range of about 3 miles. Plus  their batteries would run out pretty quickly.   The SCR-536 ‘handy-talkie’  only had a range of one-mile.

The US Marine Corps didn’t bother to issue radio  sets below battalion level, at least at first,   for several reasons. The radios were bad anyway,  the jungle terrain limited their range by as much   as 60%, their batteries would deplete quicker  in the heat, and more issues besides this.   The Japanese didn’t have FM radios, only AM, and  their sets were almost entirely obsolete anyway. And when the British tried putting radios in their  platoons during 1943, they found that the radio   operators would be made priority targets by  the enemy. The bulky sets would attract fire,   which was bad, because the platoon leader  would be next to the radio operator in order to   communicate with the higher ups. So, they would  both become suppressed if they stuck together.   If, however, the platoon leader decided  to actually lead his platoon in combat,   which was his actual task, then he wouldn’t  be able to communicate with his superiors,   making the need for a radio pointless. So, from  1944, British platoons often didn’t use radios,  

and radios were reserved for company level and up. “[For US troops in Normandy] ...the radios issued  to infantry, tank, and fighter aircraft units   had incompatible frequencies, making communication  among the arms impossible. Even when the infantry   commander was riding on the outside of a tank  or standing next to it, the noise of the tank   engine made it difficult for the infantry and  tank commanders to communicate face-to-face.” Signalmen therefore installed improvised  telephones on the outside of the tanks. For  

these reasons, and more, radios weren’t  the only signals equipment available,   and all armies used a variety  of systems during the war. “...radios, field telephones, telegraph, teletype,   pyrotechnic signal flares, colored  smoke signals, signal flags,   ground-air signal panels, heliographs, signal  lamps, messengers (human or animal), and more.”

Telephones were used by all sides, and did things  radios couldn’t do. For one, they provided decent   two-way communication without having to wait  for one speaker to stop before the other spoke.   And the line was generally very stable, even in  harsh weather conditions. The disadvantage was   that the enemy could drive two stakes into the  ground and listen in with their own telephone,   so they may or may not be secure. It  also took time to set up the lines,  

so they were better for defence than offence.  And there was also a shortage of copper wire,   especially for the Axis, so both sides  used to collect the enemy’s wires. Artillery, bombs and enemy patrols would cut  the lines. But sometimes their own side would   cut their own lines, such as during Operation  Crusader, when the 8th Army headquarters staff   cut their own telephone lines to prevent General  Cunningham from issuing orders to retreat.

During Crusader, communication between  the British ground forces and the RAF   was lacking. The British had radios, and had  RAF bombers waiting for the call to action,   and yet the call never came. And when it  did, the results weren’t always positive.   British bombers and Stukas often either stayed  out of the fight during Operation Crusader,   scared that their bombs would hit their own men,  or proceeded to bomb their own troops. In fact,   in both Crusader and Stalingrad, and probably many  other battles too, the lines were so entwined that   it wasn’t possible to call for air support at all,  or if they did, then friendly-fire incidents would   happen (and I’ll be mentioning some of those in  upcoming Stalingrad episodes). In both instances,   what they decided to do was draw a line on the map  and say ‘you can bomb anything beyond this line’. “Another of the difficulties of the Air  Force in helping the [British] Army was   that the ‘bomb-line’, or line beyond  which anything seen might be attacked,   was not easy to define in practice, for  instead of there being a clearly defined front   the forces of the two sides were often biting each  other’s flanks or tail. Aircraft were rarely able  

to join in a swaying fight between the armoured  forces, and even on the fringe of such a fight   they could not always tell friend from foe. The  Army was loath to paint large distinguishing marks   on its vehicles, though it was later forced  to follow the enemy’s lead in this respect.” Flares and smoke were often used to say ‘friendly  troops here’. The problem was that the enemy could   just deploy the same colour smoke or flares  to confuse the pilots. Again, this happened   to 24th Panzer Division on a few occasions,  such as on the 4th of September 1942, when   they fired yellow flares into the sky to signal  where they were, and the Soviets did the same,   resulting in several men being wounded and two  killed. Another occured on the 15th of September.  

The same problem applied with the artillery at  Stalingrad. Wüster’s artillery battery could only   really shell the Soviet rear areas, or specific  targets where German troops weren’t close to. “We then relocated our battery closer to  the edge of the city in order to shell the   Russian rear areas more easily. We were  supported by Stukas but unfortunately   they did not always only hit the enemy in  the maze of streets and vague front-lines.   This was also the main reason why I could  not direct our guns at individual buildings.  

A minimum safe distance of 200 metres had  to be kept because of straying shells.” Both artillery and air force observers and  liaison officers were essential to ensure   proper cooperation between the various arms. These  would create forward observation posts - like   Wüster did - or ‘Fire Direction Centers’  or FDCs in the case of the United States.  

The reason why this was necessary was  because, unlike in the First World War   where the lines were static and you could create  detailed pre-planned artillery bombardments,   the lines in the Second World  War were often more fluid,   and so it was difficult to concentrate  massive firepower on ‘unexpected’ targets. “ both Spain and Poland a very  small number of air liaison detachments   were attached to the infantry corps  and armored division headquarters   making the main attack. These detachments  could pass air-support requests directly   to the Luftwaffe and could monitor  in-flight reconnaissance reports.” During the Spanish Civil War,   cooperation between the various assets was  learned the hard way… except by the Soviets.   In Spain, Soviet tanks tended to run ahead of  their infantry… and then get annihilated… which   is exactly what happened numerous times outside  Stalingrad as I’ve shown in the Stalingrad   series. In fact, it’s not really until Operation  Uranus in late 1942 that this problem is overcome  

(but I’m not going to talk about that until  we get to it in the Stalingrad series). For the Germans, the advance into Poland  showed that while they had managed to get   tanks and infantry to cooperate, they hadn’t got  artillery or air support to cooperate with them.   And this problem wouldn’t be overcome until  France. The British on the other hand only   started to seriously consider infantry and tank  cooperation after the Fall of France, and I would   argue that they didn’t get this right until very  late in the North African Campaign. Love him or   hate him, it was Montgomery who not only trained  the units in Britain to coordinate their actions,   but also put that training into practice at El  Alamein. In fact, he basically forced the tanks  

and infantry to cooperate, even though his  subordinates were reluctant to do so. And - “Despite the efforts of many  British armored theorists,   close air support doctrine was not  really developed in Britain until 1942.” “Bernard Montgomery developed an entire network  of liaison officers and collected ground and air   headquarters to provide such support while  still leaving much independence to the RAF.” The Americans tried to have a system where  different ‘additional’ non-divisional elements,   say tank-destroyers or engineers, could  be moved from one division to another   in order to supplement a  division on the offensive.

“Corps and field army commanders who followed  doctrine by shifting these nondivisional units   from division to division according to the  situation found that they could maximize the   use of such elements only at the cost  of much confusion and inefficiency.   Attachment to a different division meant  dealing with a different set of procedures and   personalities before the attached units could mesh  smoothly with that division. Once such a smooth   relationship was established, the division was  reluctant to release its attachments as ordered.” In fact, many attached tank, engineer,  tank-destroyer, anti-aircraft, and other   elements remained attached to US divisions  for months at a time because of this issue.   The good news though was that at least these  different elements were cooperating together.

And a lot of the issues I’ve mentioned in this  video regarding command and communication, as well   as coordination of the various arms, kept coming  up even in the later part of the war. In 1942,   the US 32nd Division assaulted Japanese bunkers  without sufficient fire support, having failed   to properly coordinate artillery and air assets.  So bad was this mistake that they were attacked by   their own air force on a weekly basis - and they  still didn’t bother to communicate with the air   force. The lesson of neglecting to cooperate  with the other arms was learned the hard way. A similar thing happened in  Normandy, because a lot of US units   hadn’t seen combat before, and had also neglected  their training when it came to cooperating and   coordinating their infantry and tank actions.  And this is why I said at the beginning that   it really wasn’t until after the war that many of  these armies got their acts together. Coordination  

between the various arms was done on almost  a casual basis for most of the war - which is   perhaps why I’ve not found much on this particular  subject, because cooperation wasn’t formalized   until after 1945. Therefore, I’m going to leave  you with this quote from Jonathan House - again,   his book is decent and goes into a lot of  other things too - so be sure to check it out.   Here’s what House has to say in conclusion about  combined arms warfare during the Second World War.

“By 1945, most armed forces had  developed unofficial techniques   for effective air-ground cooperation in the  field. Such techniques did not resolve the   basic doctrinal differences between air and  ground components. These disputes persisted   in peacetime long after the procedures  for close air support were forgotten.” Thanks for watching, bye for now.

2021-02-17 19:00

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